Basketball In Mali--"Red" Verderame.

Author:Baker, Robert

The U.S. Information Agency in 1969 offered the teaching services of Salvatore "Red" Verderame, an outstanding basketball coach. As it was a popular sport in Mali, I asked for Red to teach in Mali a full week. When he was slated to visit, I sent diplomatic notes with the dates of his visit to the Malian Ministry of Sport and to the Foreign Ministry. Both agreed to let me take him around to schools and even to Army camps in Bamako and other towns. That was a rare opportunity to travel as American diplomats had to get permission just to leave the capital. The Malian government was proudly and loudly Marxist. Local media denounced the U.S. daily as racist, imperialist and aggressive. Our war in Vietnam gave lots of room for criticism.

After Red settled in to Bamako, we went on tour driving in the post's ancient green Chevy station wagon to a dozen cities and towns. Red spoke no French so I was his interpreter. He was a middle aged, giant, 6' 5", pear shaped Pan, red hair, blue eyes, but still very nimble and energetic on the court. His personality was very warm. At the Chinese-built motel in Mopti, the Venice of Africa (called that locally because the streets flooded in the annual rains) we checked in late one day after a long drive. It's about 285 miles to Mopti from Bamako on the dusty, red clay roads. I had been in Africa a couple years and knew the local ropes somewhat. After I washed up in the thin trickle of warmish water from the shower, I called Red for supper. We hopped over the thin line of sewage that trickled out of one of the rooms next to ours. The line ran near, but not into, the dining room.

We sat to order supper. I suggested we get the chicken stew, as it was boiled and safe to eat. The stew was good. Red enjoyed it with excellent French bread, a fresh baguette, amazingly still baked in Marxist Mali, and coffee. The stew came in large, broad rimmed bowls, a substantial meal. It also had some very tiny roaches in it, about half the size of rice grains. When I saw them floating on my soup, I automatically used my spoon to scoop them, then tapped them out onto the edge of my soup plate and kept eating. I was used to them and knew they were harmless. Halfway through the meal Red asked me what I was doing putting stuff onto the edge of my plate. Then he leaned over close for a good look and said, "Jesus, they got legs!" He looked at me as if I were crazy and stopped eating his stew. He ate only canned beans right out of the can...

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